Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

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K likes the feel of carpet beneath her bare feet.

R is happy to see her toys, a tea set filled with endless cups of imaginary tea.

Lee likes being indoors–sans flies–in a house he renovated.

I like not having to trudge across the campground to pee in the morning.

But the house feels big—too big, after the four of us in a trailer for a year. K says, “I can feel the bigness even when I close my eyes in bed at night.” Often Lee and I wake in the morning with both girls squeezed into our queen-sized bed.

Moving back in was a pain, especially for Lee, who’d taken all the furniture apart to fit into a small store room, and had to reassemble everything again. So much stuff! . . . But the girls were thrilled to see Tony, the shared Strata cat.

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K doing a flip off the pier in Merimbula–Our last stop: the Sapphire Coast, 500 KMs south of Sydney

It’s good to come home and see friends—a year older, a little stressed from city life, but much the same. “Wow, it’s been a year, already!” Everyone says.

To us, it feels we’ve been away a decade. Or more.

All the things we’ve done, the places we’ve been, all those long languid days in the bush–it feels as if we’ve been traveling for years. And there’s so much I didn’t write about, like the time we drove down a long dirt road in the Outback to a campground we weren’t sure existed, “Do you ever wonder why we’re doing this?” I asked Lee. He nodded vigorously.

There are moments etched in my memory: eating fresh oysters on Perlubie Beach in South Australia, where we camped just meters from that clear blue sea.

Kayaking on the Ningaloo Reef with sea turtles swimming all around.

Lying in bed in the dark of the trailer and hearing a pair of barking owls on the Gibb River Road, then getting up, stepping outside as dawn arrived and seeing them perched side by side in the tree above.

Watching R ride a bike for the first time through the scrapyard where we lived with friends in Darwin.

Cooking bread on the fire in the bush at night, and then—with Lee and the girls—devouring the entire loaf, still hot, smothered with butter, as we sat under the stars outside our tent.

Lying under the night sky in Budjamulla with Kaitlyn, waiting for, willing a shooting star to sail across the sky—and then it did!

Walking to the top of Mount Kosciusko with K and R and my father, through snow—the first snow the girls have ever seen.

Lee’s been working since he got back–he’s go so much work on. School starts Monday. My semester begins on 20 Feb. And here we are, back in the swing of things—play dates and shopping, parties and work, endless texts and emails, meetings, dentist appointments, schedules, protests, a house to look after, and Tony the cat.

It’s not all bad, but what a year we had. What. A. Year.

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R jumping off the pier in Merimbula, NSW
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From Heat and Flies to Snow and Flies: the varied landscapes of New South Wales

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K reading on the river

What you can’t see in the picture is the heat and the flies—millions of them. The Clarence River meanders through the mountains of northern New South Wales and it’s stunning, but . . .

The heat! The flies!

Crawling on my sweaty legs, buzzing round my ears, crawling up my nose. It was forty degrees C and sunny and humid and the flies were relentless. At sundown they went, only to be replaced by more flies—smaller ones that squeezed through the mesh windows of our tent. Flies inside the tent. It was too hot to zip up the windows so we turned out the lights to stop attracting the little blighters. That was it, 9 p.m. (felt like 8 because we’d just come from Queensland) lights out, goodnight Irene, no reading, just heat and flies crawling on us in the dark.

Luckily, there was one other family camped on the river with us with two boys. In the morning they played with our girls. I sat and watched and read Trollope and wrote and periodically walked down to the river, then into the river to submerge myself in all my clothes, the only way to cool down.image

The family we met is planning a trip like ours. They’re from Sydney, but left the city ten years ago, moved to a little place called the Pocket, outside of Mullumbimby—I love that, outside of Mullumbimby, as if Mullumbimby is just a bit too busy. They have a house with a garden that backs onto a creek with a swimming hole. It sounds heavenly.

In no time we’ll be in our townhouse in Bronte, which backs onto another townhouse.

Clarence River was beautiful, but the flies proved too much. The other family left after one night. We left after two.

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Driving through the Northern Rivers section of NSW

Next stop: Broken Head Nature Reserve, just south of Byron Bay. There we encountered the biggest rain we’ve had all year. On our first night, two thunderstorms passed overhead—thunder cracked all night and the sky was lit with lightening. Lee got up four times in the night to push the water off the canopy and the tent. Water dripped through for the first time in our year round Australia.

In the morning we were exhausted and everything was soaked.

For the first time, I looked forward to going home, to four walls and a roof, to waking up and not stepping through mud to get to the toilet.

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Broken Head Nature Reserve, south of Byron Bay

imageByron is beautiful even in the rain and Lee and K enjoyed the surf, while R and I wrote stories. We met up with our friends, Lu and Bede again. We stayed four nights in the National Park and then we drove south to another stunning place.

Minnie Water, recommended to us by Lu and Bede, is a tiny village surrounded by Yuraygir National Park. It’s paradise. We stayed three nights in Illaroo Campground, just before it started getting busy with Queenslanders on holiday.

We surfed, played in the sand, went for walks, enjoyed our solar shower, and the girls played endless imaginary games. They never fight in the bush.

Then we made our way down the coast to Port Macquarie, where we stayed at the “Murray Resort” with our generous friends, Jacqui and David and their beautiful baby. We went to the beach, played with the cats, helped put up Christmas decorations, and visited the Koala Hospital, where local sick and injured koalas go to recover.

One night Lee and I slept with the window open and heard the local koala talking, which sounded like nothing we’d ever heard before—somewhere between a grunt and an a heave—such an odd sound for that impossibly cute creature.

We left Port and headed south again to the Central Coast, where we had two more days of rain. Then we bypassed Sydney (where our house is still rented out) and visited friends who’ve recently left the rat race and now live in a stunning new house that overlooks the beach in Thirroul. Lee set up the trailer in their driveway and their son slept in it overnight! Our girls played with their boys; the dads drank Daly’s homebrew, and the mums chatted away in the kitchen.

After a fabulous weekend with friends, we drove southeast, to Canberra, to meet my parents.

Then, to the Snowy Mountains! My parents splurged (again) and rented a cabin in Kosciuszko National Park with views of Lake Jindabyne. It’s just us and the roos here. And a million flies. But that’s OK, because we’re indoors!

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K splashing into Lake Jindabyne in Kosciusko National Park

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, we climbed the tallest mountain in Australia: Mount Kosciuszko. R, 5, and Pop, 77, were the youngest and oldest respectively at the top of that magnificent look-out. We made it up and  back–a 14 kilometre walk–just before a massive thunderstorm broke.

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Pop climbing Mt. Kossy
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The Snowy Mountains
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R in snow!

On the way up Mt. Kossy the girls saw snow for the first time. They tramped over it, slipped down it, threw snowballs and screamed with delight, It’s cold!!!

One more stop before we’re back home in Sydney.

Merry Christmas everyone, and thanks for reading.

Brisbane, Surrounds, and the Amazing Toowong State School

 

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Brisbane, courtesy of visitbrisbane.com.au

I found myself awake with the sun in Brisbane, at five a.m. No daylight savings in Queensland means first light in November is at 4:20 a.m. I sat on the balcony of our crappy rented flat and watched the cyclists stream past on the bike path below.

The cycle paths are excellent in Brissie (except in the CBD where they overlap with bus lanes). There’s a path along both sides of the Brisbane River and it’s packed—mostly with MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra). But K and R and I rode on the bike path when it wasn’t peak hour, when cyclists weren’t racing past at 30 kilometres an hour.

A mild depression hung around my time in the city, made worse by the unbelievable U.S. election result. I was finally missing work and wishing we were still in the bush.

Lee worked the whole three and a half weeks we were in Brisbane and loved it. He built rooms for friends of his who own a block of flats on the other side of town.

K went to Toowong State School and this is the real reason we came.

I had about four hours between when the kids woke up and K went to school—four hours inside, which was hard. Lee left for work early. The girls and I had breakfast, wrote stories, made Christmas cards, had an imaginary café. And then we had another hour to kill before school.

R and I spent our days cycling to South Bank, where they have a beach, lagoon and a great playground. We also visited the art galleries and science museum, all of which are free.

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R on the Playground at Southbank

People say, Move to Brissie, it’s more relaxed. And it’s true. Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, has a population of just two million and the houses (unlike Sydney or Melbourne) are still affordable. There’s plenty of work for Lee. The bilingual program at Toowong is excellent; more on the school in a moment.

But in November it was 35 C with 80% humidity. I felt like I was cycling through pea soup. When I went to buy a Saturday paper, it was either a Murdoch tabloid or a Murdoch broadsheet, as it is in so many places in Australia.

Noosa and Surrounds

One weekend, we got away up the coast and camped at Coolum Beach. As luck would have it, we were two sites down from a deaf man and his partner, an Auslan interpreter!

Getting out of the city on a Friday night was a nightmare, though. We were stuck in traffic for hours. At one point I thought it would’ve been quicker on the bike.

The next day we spent all morning in the surf, which was lovely. K’s surfing is improving. But Lee, after carrying his board all around Australia, into the centre and back out again, snapped his board on the first wave.

That evening, we drove up to Noosa Heads for a sunset bbq. It’s a popular place and you can see why.

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Noosa Heads National Park

Toowong State School

Toowong is similar to the wonderful bilingual school in Adelaide: Klemzig. It’s an ideal place for both deaf and hearing kids, but it’s in a beautiful wooden building, that looks more like a house than a school. It’s a Queenslander, up on stilts, to catch the breeze in the classrooms. The kids eat lunch below their classrooms, in the shade of the building.

K had two deaf “best friends” at the school—one fully deaf and one with some hearing like herself. She’s never had “best friends”. I watched them signing and smiling on the playground and knew this was the right spot for her.

Nine out of the 29 students in K’s class were deaf and everyone signed. There were deaf teachers and hearing teachers, but everyone signed.

They have drumming on Wednesdays; even the profoundly deaf kids can feel the rhythm. Every Friday they have deaf drama and also art. When I talked to one of the many passionate teachers who work at Toowong, she told me it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified staff, since they’ve gotten rid of the Teacher of the Deaf program in universities in Queensland and they’re finishing in other parts of the country, too.  This is a huge loss for deaf children in Australia.

Experts say that with improved hearing aids and cochlear implants, deaf children don’t need to sign. But cochlear implants don’t make you hearing. And they don’t work for everyone. K loved the school, adored it, and when we were in Brissie, she wished she could go on Saturday and Sunday as well.

In K’s classroom there were four adults—a teacher, a teacher’s aid, an interpreter and an Auslan Language Modal from the Deaf Community. No wonder the classroom was so organised. No wonder they get so much done in such a relaxed atmosphere.

In K’s final two weeks, they studied poetry in English and Auslan. And K learned how to compose an Auslan poem, which she eagerly showed me when she got home from school. She wants to move to Brisbane now.

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Toowong State School

It was with some sadness that K left Brisbane and her new-found friends for a brief stay on the Gold Coast. Then it was back to the bush and New South Wales! We’re getting close to home . . . .

Queensland: The Tablelands and Down the Coast to Brisbane

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Bush-turkey, by K, found everywhere–even in Brisbane!

I haven’t written in over a month. As our year-long trip nears its end, a certain melancholy has set in, at least for me. I suppose, after so many highs, it’s inevitable. We did have some amazing bush camping in northern and mid Queensland before we arrived in Brisbane four weeks ago and what follows is an attempt to describe these adventures . . .

The Tablelands

Northwest of Townsville and southwest of Cairns lie the Tablelands. Slightly higher altitude means lower temperatures, rain forests and rain. We drove past fields of sugarcane and stayed in a state forest full of cheeky kookaburras, one of whom flew down and tried to steal the hamburger meat from my hands—I felt the air from the sweep of its wings, but managed to save the meat. Wildlife was abundant at Kauri Creek Campground in Danbulla State Forest. I went for a lovely 9 K walk and didn’t see another soul. Each evening, after the girls were asleep, Lee and I spotted a musky rat kangaroo, the smallest kangaroo, who came into our campsite.

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View from Our Campsite at Kauri Creek

I had one near disastrous kayak. The level of the lake was way down, due to drought, and when we were walking towards the water over wet sand, I began to sink. The more I struggled, the deeper I sank. Lee had to pull me out. Twice.

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Photo taken just before I began sinking into quicksand

On the way to our next camp in Malanda we nearly ran over a black kitten stumbling around the middle of the road. It was midday and a wedge-tailed eagle had spotted the kitten, too. The eagle was circling as Lee slowed to a stop. I rolled my eyes. Lee got out to rescue the cat and brought it into the car. Now, it must be said that K’s deepest dearest wish—what she wishes for every time an eyelash lands on her face or she blows out the birthday candles on her cake—is for a cat. And there she sat in the back with this little black fluff ball at her feet inside an empty beer carton. I was thinking: how are we ever going to take this kitten back to Sydney? And wouldn’t it have been better for the environment if we’d let the eagle have its lunch?

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A bittersweet goodbye to Max

We drove on, pulled into a caravan park, which was also a small farm, and I said to the woman, “We have a problem.” Then we pulled out the gorgeous little kitty, maybe three weeks old. “We’ll take it,” she said. “My son’s always wanted a black cat.” I was relieved. K was heart-broken, but magnanimous in her loss. Later she told me, “I’m happy that Max has a good home. I saw how gentle that boy was with the kitten—I saw that he was caring for him the same way I would’ve cared for him.”

Babinda

After too brief a time in the Tablelands, we drove back to the coast–lush green mountains filled with sugarcane–and made our way south. Babinda had a gorgeous free camp near a swimming hole in the rain forest.

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R on top of trailer–free camp at Babinda

You can take a short walk through the rain forest to the swirling torrent that is Devil’s Pool, where, legend has it:

A long time ago, Oolana, the beautiful young wife of an elder of the Wanyurr tribe, fell in love with Dyga, a handsome young man from a visiting tribe. The two lovers, knowing that tribal lore forbade their union, ran away together. After having been discovered camping by the creek, Dyga returned to his tribe. Oolana, however, threw herself into the water, which became a swirling torrent. The ground opened up and huge boulders were cast into the air. Today the boulders mark where Oolana drowned.

            Oolana’s spirit is believed to reside here today—she continues to call out for Dyga to return, enticing wandering travellers, especially men. Over the years, a number of young men have drowned in this very place . . .

Platypus Camp

This is one of my favourite places—right up there with the Eyre Peninsula, Karijini and Boodjamulla. Platypus Camp is an hour in from Mackay, but it feels like worlds away. It’s run by an old hippie and environmentalist, Wazza, who was away on holiday. A family was looking after the place and R made friends with their girls. The family is thinking of buying the camp and moving there permanently, after selling their house in Adelaide. I can see why. Platypus Camp is set in the rain forest with its own resident bandicoots, a stunning swimming hole and separate Platypus Viewing area on another section of the river. The showers are donkey showers (heated by wood fire in the evening); they have three walls and open onto the rain forest so your showering in the outdoors. The camp is biking distance to two beautiful walks to falls and swimming holes. It’s stunning and I recommend it to anyone.

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Swimming hole near Platypus Camp
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K biking back to Platypus Camp

Then we made our way down to Brisbane via the town of 1770, named for when Captain Cook landed. Not a lot has happened since.

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Sunset, 1770

The last place we camped before Brisbane was a lovely bush camp on the Mary River near Kenilworth.

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More to come on Brisbane in the next installment . . .

From Goats on the Table to The Great Barrier Reef

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Millie in my kitchen, Farm Stay in Nelia, QLD

We left Mount Isa after visiting the library and the pool, and headed down the highway towards the east coast. We were headed–had been heading for days–to meet a friend in Townsville, still another 904 kilometres. I sat shotgun, studying Wikicamps and the map and the Camps Book and after about forty-five minutes, I said to Lee, “Turn off here—let’s check out this free camp.”

“But we’ve only gone 57 kilometres.”

“I know,” I said. “We’ll just have a look.” We found this spacious free camp at Corella Dam.

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There were people camped for weeks, and you could see why. Four baby lapwings greeted us as we pulled in. Our neighbour went out to find firewood for us. We watched the pelicans fish. We  saw the sun set over the dam.

imageAnd then the wind started. It was gale-force. Wind and tents don’t mix—we learned that on the west coast. The noisy flapping kept Lee and R and I up most of the night. The next day, we packed up and got on the road.

Our next stop was a farm stay in Nelia, population 10. It was like something out of a children’s book. K wrote in her journal:

Goats on the table

Chickens on the roof

Cow in the kitchen

Mozzies eating us alive!!!

 imageThe farm stay was on Main Street, sandwiched between the old post office and the railroad track that runs sulphuric acid and copper from the mine in Mount Isa to Townsville.imageEric, a friendly talkative man, runs the farm with his partner, who was away. Eric grew up in Nelia and his mum ran the post office until it closed. The town used to be bigger, but now Eric’s got just one neighbour across the road, whom he doesn’t get on with.

The girls loved getting to water the pigs and feed the chickens. They were sad to say goodbye to Bo Bo the goat and Millie the cow, but off we went. I went early, cycling against the wind.

We stopped in Richmond to see a museum full of prehistoric fossils from the area. K’s favourite was a plesiosaur that, several decades ago, two boys found while playing in the creek behind their house. Scientists and volunteers are still digging in the area. I dream of coming back here with K and joining the dig as a volunteer.

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That afternoon we drove for hours along that dry flat desolate road. At some point the name changed from the Barkly Highway to the Flinders, but the road was the same. That night we camped for free behind a pub in the small outback town of Pentland. With a grassy site, toilets (complete with green tree frogs) and showers, this was a bargain.

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The long road to Townsville from the interior

The next day we drove on through the flat arid landscape that seemed never to end.  And then, it changed! All of a sudden there were rolling green hills and green as far as you could see. We were getting close to the east coast.

At Charters Towers, we hit traffic for the first time since we left Perth on a Friday afternoon in April.

In Townsville the sea greeted us, and so did our dear friend, Katrina. She works for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Island Legal Service (ATSILS). We stayed with Katrina in her lovely flat and were pampered with great food and good wine. Thank you, Auntie Katrina!

I’ve only seen a handful of friends from Sydney since we started the journey. My friend Jenny flew up to Darwin in July, which was magic. It’s so nice to catch up with Sydney friends, though I don’t think I miss anything else about the city!

On Saturday we took our bikes on the boat to Magnetic Island. The weather was cloudy and blustery, so I didn’t have to worry about sunscreen for once.

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K cycling towards an enormous fig on Magnetic Island

After three beautiful days with Katrina, we headed north—not very far—to Crystal Creek. There’s a natural waterside here in the rocks, complete with just enough algae to make you go fast. Magic.

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K coming down sliding rock

We were fortunate to meet up with some friends that we made in Cape Arid National Park in WA, six months previously. Lu and Bede are newly retired, and doing a lap, just like us. They’re over sixty, but fitter than most forty-year-olds. At K’s request, they went down the rock slides, too.  It’s the eighth time we’ve met up with them along the way.

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And again (and again and again . . . )

K wanted to stay at the sliding rocks indefinitely, but after two nights we headed north, hoping to get to the Tablelands. We hadn’t counted on road works.

Or the fact that I like to stop at every single roadside fruit stand.

imageAt around four in the afternoon, we still hadn’t gotten to the turn off that would take us to Yungaburra. Our fridge was warming up and we realised we needed to plug in–we needed a caravan park, and soon. I was driving; it was hot; I had a headache. When I saw that Cairns was only another fifty kilometres, I looked at Lee.

“You want to go to Cairns?”

His eyes lit up. As a backpacker, nearly twenty years ago, Cairns was the first place in Australia Lee came to. He flew from the dull and dreary UK to this tropical paradise. When he landed here in June 1997, it was 27 degrees and sunny in the middle of “winter”. The beer was cheap, the palms swayed in the breeze and I think he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. He went to the Wool Shed every night and drank until he danced on the tables.

Needless to say, times have changed. As I write this, it’s 8:45 in the evening and he’s fallen asleep while putting the girls to bed.

So, we came to Cairns, along with about a million other tourists. This is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and it is a lovely tropical setting, albeit very touristy. We’re here for one more night before heading into the bush again.

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K getting ready to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef

Today, Lee and K took a boat to Green Island, where they snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, alive with huge sea turtles, colourful fish and giant clams. What a life.

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Picturesque: Sunset on the Esplanade in Cairns

Adventures in Northwest Outback Queensland

Eight days ago we left the centre, took the Stuart Highway north and watched the mercury rising. We passed the Tropic of Capricorn and stayed the night at Devils Marbles. I couldn’t resist a few more photographs.

The following morning we drove to Three Ways and then east along the Barkly Highway, a lonely stretch of road.

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In the more remote areas of Australia, markers on the highway show the distance to and initials of the next town. On the Barkly in the NT, however, there are no towns; for that stretch of 257 kilometres, the markers heading west read SH for Stuart Highway and headed east they read QLD, for the Queensland border.

I took my bike out early and cycled down this long straight flat road that cuts through the middle of Australia. I cycled 26 kilometres against the wind, which felt more like 96. I’ve never been so happy to see our trailer with the pink kayak on top coming my way.

I’ve cycled bits of this trip around Australia; it’s the easy way to bike round. I don’t have to carry any gear and Lee always picks me up after an hour or two. It’s nice to slow down and peddle sections of the journey. I enjoy the rare moments of solitude. I can hear the birds, feel the wind. And sometimes I just stop, get off the bike, and stare into the vastness of the landscape.

Sometimes I think of my late brother, who, with his best friend, Bob, cycled across the U.S. one summer: Atlanta to LA, a hundred miles a day. This was the early 90s and he used to send back rolls of film—no note—just a Kodak roll that my mother would develop. We’d look at the photos and try to guess where he was.

It’s all flat grassland as far as you can see on the Barkly and then, 40 kilometres from the border:

imageWhat a place to find the Bard!

We crossed the border with almost no fruit and veg because of quarantine (that turned out to be lax going into Queensland, unlike other states). At Cammoweal, just over the border, I’d planned to shop, but it was a public holiday we’d forgotten all about, and everything was shut.

We drove off the highway, looking for a free camp on the Cammoweal Billabong, but the road was closed because of recent heavy rains.

So, we carried on down the highway, fruitless, unsure of our next camp. We found a free camp on the side of the highway, but it was bleak. We weren’t sure whether to start down the dirt road to Budjamulla National Park–it was over 200 kilometres and we didn’t know how the road was after all that heavy rain. Then, three mud-splattered four wheel-drives pulled into the rest area.

I went over to them. “How’s the road?”

“Fun!” one young man said with a smile. “I only crashed twice.”

“The mud’s a bit slippy,” another said. “It’ll take you four hours.”

We’d already been driving four hours, but we decided to go for it—at least drive part of the way. Anything had to be better than that sad rest area with no shade, a concrete block for a table and toilet paper in the bushes.

It was three o’clock as we pulled out of the rest area. When another car returning from the dirt track saw which direction we were going, he shouted out, “Good luck!”

An emu greeted us on the side of the road at the start of our journey. And a red kangaroo hopped just in front of the car and then alongside us at 40 kilometres an hour and I knew we’d made the right decision.

I drove. I remember the first puddle because as I went through, it slowed the car and covered the windscreen so I couldn’t see anything. The girls cheered in the back seat. Lee rolled his eyes.

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This was our first time driving in mud and it reminded me of driving through snow in Binghamton, NY—at some point you lose control of the car and just pray that it stays on the road.

Two hours later, and we were still driving through mud. The girls played in the backseat where they’d been since nine a.m. I was getting hungry and trying to calculate when the sun would set. We’d gained half an hour when we entered Queensland.

When we got to our first river crossing I stopped the car, hopped out, and let Lee put it in four wheel-drive. We got through fine.

Then we came to a raging river crossing.

Lee and I were both nervous. I got out and walked through—it only came up to my knees, but the current was strong. Lee, convinced that we were far too heavy to be swept away, put it in four wheel-drive again and powered through. It’s the only time I’ve been grateful for all the weight we’re carrying. I was too nervous to take a photo, but I took one on our way out five days later.

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That night we stayed at a bush camp. A mob of agile wallabies greeted us as we came through the gate. We were the only ones camping and we woke at sunrise with the birds, had pancakes with a million flies, packed up and drove a short way up the road to Riversliegh D Site.

Riversliegh Fossil Fields

We were the only ones visiting this place that—25 million years ago—had been a rain forest and home to animals such as the “thunderbird”, or dromornithid, a huge flightless bird that weighed 300 kilos and was three times the size of an emu, but is apparently more closely related to the modern-day domestic duck.

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Thunderbird (image from pinterist.com)

We saw fossils of this bird and of a now extinct giant freshwater crocodile and a horned turtle, below.

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Fossil of a turtle from 25 million years ago

In this site and others nearby, they’ve also found fossils of the now extinct marsupial lion, carnivorous kangaroo, and flesh-eating bats.

As we searched for fossils and walked through Riversleigh Site D, it was hard to imagine the wet climate that supported these beings 25 million years ago.

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Riversleigh Site D

 

Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill Gorge)

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Lawn Hill Gorge

After driving 207 kilometres down a desolate dirt road, it is a welcome surprise to come across the lush oasis that is Boodjamulla National Park (formerly Lawn Hill National Park).

It’s no wonder that the Waanyi people have called this place home for well over 30,000 years (which means they were around when the last of the thunderbirds walked the earth 28,000 years ago, and might have hunted the slow birds to extinction). We saw rock art from 10,000 years ago near the creek.

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Bower of the bower bird

I’d booked us in for three nights at Boodjamulla, but we stayed four, and would’ve stayed longer if we’d had more food. Each morning the purple-crowned fairy wren visited our campsite, along with crimson finches, bower birds, and dozens of other feathered friends.

In the evenings we saw turtles in the creek, which is vast and green and rich with limestone that’s good for producing fossils. It’s more of a river than a creek.

The days were hot, the nights cool. Each morning and evening I kayaked up through the gorge to the cascades, where I swam with the girls. River pandanus drapes the edges of the creek until you reach the tall cliffs of the gorge. Swallows nest on the sides of these vast red rocks, darting back and forth along the water. A few trees grow, their roots reaching metres down to the waters of the creek.

imageR came with me in the kayak in the mornings. She sat between my legs, occasionally trying to paddle, chatting all the way. We made up stories about imaginary creatures who live in the creek: the Budja Budja, a bright pink octopus with ten legs, who feeds on the stripy fish beneath our kayak, and the Bunda Bunda, a blue turtle with green wings, who lays its eggs on the tops of the lily pads we paddled past.

The birds chirped in the trees around us. Bubbles rose to the surface from unknown creatures below. Dragonflies mated in the air.

These were long languid mornings, out of time. We were often the only ones on the water. My shoulders still ache from all that paddling.

One night we let K stay up late. Lee made a mattress of canvas on the ground and she lay with a sleeping bag under the night sky. She waited patiently for the sky to darken—identifying Venus and Mars and Saturn. She waited and watched, and then we saw it: the most magnificent shooting star streaked across the sky. “I saw one!” she screamed. And so she saw her first shooting star. Then she saw three more.

On our last evening in Budjamulla we borrowed another canoe and all four of us paddled up the river at sunset. We went skinny dipping at the cascades in the fading light and paddled back down under the light of a half moon.

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Mount Isa

It was with great reluctance that we left Eden and it was a shock to arrive in the mining town of Mount Isa. But we were completely out of food and water and only just made it to Woolies in “Isa” before it shut at five yesterday. It’s Sunday today and everything’s closed except the Fossil Centre.

This morning K and I went on a two-hour tour, led by an enthusiastic volunteer. We saw hundreds of fossils from Riversliegh, where we were, just days ago.

We got to look through microscopes at fossils from 3 million year-old bat poo—tiny ancient mouse bones and teeth.

The tour guide was excited to have a kid in the group and at the end, took K back into the lab so she could hold several 30 million year old fossils—amazing.

K examines a thirty million year old vertebrae from the Thunderbird

 

‘Palya!’ (Welcome)

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Bear Bear and Roxie contemplate Uluru just before sunrise

Uluru

When we arrived in Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) the sign read “Palya!” (Welcome).

Wherever we travel in Australia, we’re continuously welcomed onto lands owned by the local indigenous population—in English, in Kriol, in Pintjantjatjara. “Welcome to country,” says the Aboriginal guide “Welcome,” reads the sign at Kata Tjuta, “Welcome,” says the Aboriginal artist in Hermannsburg. “Welcome.”

To receive this from a people whose lands have been taken, whose children have been stolen, whose culture was—for so many years—denigrated, does not cease to surprise me.

The world comes to Uluru, this majestic rock that began forming 900 million years ago when much of central Australia was a sea. They come by plane, by bus, in cars pulling camper trailers, like ourselves.

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Uluru: close up the caves and canyons are revealed

“Palya!” reads the sign, and then, a request: “Please don’t climb”.

This is a sacred site. Yet every day travellers and tourists ignore the sign and climb Uluru. 35 people have died climbing the rock. On our first night there three people were stranded at the top and needed rescuing. Why does the white person always have to claim it, climb it, stick a flag on top?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Times are changing. 20 years ago when Lee first came here as a backpacker, he climbed Ayres Rock, completely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on a sacred site. These days there is a large cultural centre explaining the significance of Uluru to the Anunga people. When you walk around the rock, signs point out, “the teaching cave” and “the kitchen cave” and special sacred areas where you cannot take photographs. A lot has changed in two decades. Everywhere we go indigenous names replace settler names. It feels as if a new wave of respect is passing over this vast continent.

My own children have never heard of Ayres Rock and wouldn’t dream of trying to climb Uluru. Instead, we walked and cycled the ten kilometres around the big rock. Magic.

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Uluru at sunrise

Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)

These rocks, about 40 kilometres from Uluru, turn purple in the evening light. The four of us went on a long varied walk here, which was equally, if not more beautiful than Uluru.

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Warrtaka (Kings Canyon)

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Warrtaka

After four nights near Uluru, we travelled on to Warrtaka, where—yes, Alicia!—we heard the dingos howling at night. They also traipsed through our campsite, looking for food.

While there, we did the popular “rim walk”. It was a cloudy day, thankfully. The sun is strong in the desert even when it’s not hot.

On the initial steep ascent, R said, “Mama, a wheelchair couldn’t get up here. Why don’t they make it for a wheelchair?”

“Well,” I paused, for the thought had not occurred to me that this rugged 5.4 km walk should be wheelchair accessible. “It would be a bit hard to make a ramp up this mountain,” I explained.  She was nonplussed with my answer—a future disability advocate in the making??

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R climbs up to the rim walk.

The walk was other-worldly.

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We saw numerous “ripple rocks”, evidence of the sand shaped by ancient tides when the earth was warmer, the poles weren’t frozen and shallow seas stretched into much of central Australia.

Large dome rocks surrounded us. At the centre was an oasis, “the Garden of Eden”, green with plant life and in stark contrast with all that dry red rock.

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Oasis at Warrtaka

Ellery Creek Water Hole

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After three nights at Warrtaka, we carried on back to the West McDonnell Ranges and camped at Ellery Creek Water Hole, where it was just us and a two or three other campers and a billion flies. There were flies in our eyes and in our ears, flies wandering into our nostrils, flies making suicide jumps into the pancake batter. They all disappear when the sun goes down, however, and the sky reveals about 7,000 stars.

Ellery Creek Water Hole proved a deliciously cold place to swim and we had two beautiful long lazy bush days there.

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Home school at Ellery Creek

The waterhole was serene—a large oasis with two orange craggy cliffs either side, and a lone gum tree near the top of one cliff. A heron fished for most of the day in the shallows, undisturbed by our girls playing in the water nearby.

I’m reading We of the Never Never and there’s a quote in the book about travelling in the bush that—although written over a hundred years ago—feels apt today:

Sixty-five miles in three days, against sixty miles an hour of the express trains of the world. ‘Speed’s the thing,’ cries the world, and speeds on, gaining little but speed; and we bush-folk travel our sixty miles and gain all that is worth gaining—except speed. –Aeneas Gunn

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